1000 gather over threat to cut hospital services

A 1000-strong crowd gave a unanimous vote of confidence in Central Otago Health Services Ltd last...
A 1000-strong crowd gave a unanimous vote of confidence in Central Otago Health Services Ltd last night. Photo by Lynda van Kempen
The threat of services being cut at Dunstan Hospital galvanised about 1000 people to attend a public meeting in Alexandra last night, but the district health board said budget cuts were still under negotiation.

The meeting was the first in a series of three organised by Central Otago Health Services Ltd (COHSL) to gauge support for its fight against a planned 5% funding cut signalled by the Southern District Health Board (SDHB).

The community-owned health company runs Dunstan Hospital and it says the budget should be increased because of population growth in its catchment area, which includes the upper Clutha, as well as Central Otago.

Crowds packed the Alexandra Memorial Theatre and adjacent community centre to hear the health company outline its position and potential cuts to services and the response from district health board management during the two-hour meeting.

Dunstan clinician Dr Matt Born said if cuts were being made by the board without taking into account the efficiencies of certain departments and the inefficiencies of others, ''it's like replacing a scalpel and using a bush knife''.

COHSL chairman Russell McGeorge said the company had always lived within its means and services had ''flourished'' since the company took over the running of the hospital more than 15 years ago.

That came after the district health board's predecessor had proposed closing the facility in the late 1990s.

If the funding cut went ahead, the health company would have to slash its budget by about $1 million a year, which could mean a drop in the number of inpatient beds at Dunstan and in staff numbers.

That would result in more transfers to other hospitals to cope with the ''overflow '' at Dunstan and more transport costs.

SDHB chief executive Carole Heatly said she knew Central Otago residents were passionate about their health services.

The board had to live within its means and was ''talking to everyone'' about budget cuts. It had reached agreement with Balclutha, Gore and Maniototo but was ''still in discussions'' with the Central Otago health company.

Projected population growth for the next 20 years showed that Dunedin would have the biggest population growth in the over-65 age group, who were the biggest users of health services, followed by Invercargill and then the Queenstown Lakes district.

Board planning and funding director Sandra Boardman said the board supported its rural hospitals.

''We do not want to see the scenario you have presented [the cuts to services] and that's why we're continuing to have discussions about this,'' she said.

Alexandra resident Shirley Alabaster, one of the people instrumental in fighting for a new Dunstan Hospital building more than a decade ago, said she had ''some sympathy for the DHB''. She urged the crowd not to rely on others but to act by ''making some noise''.

The crowd agreed on a vote of confidence in COHSL, but was divided on a vote of ''no confidence'' in the SDHB, when it was proposed by a member of the audience.

However, the lack of Government funding for rural health came under attack from several speakers from the floor and a vote of no confidence in Health Minister Jonathan Coleman was supported.

Further meetings will take place in Cromwell tonight, and at Wanaka on Tuesday, May 26, at 7.30pm.

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